- The Art of Undeceiving
Among the many stories about an “early American visual culture of illusion” that Wendy Bellion tells in her essential new study, Citizen Spectator, is that of a writing master named Samuel Lewis. In 1808, Lewis donated two items to Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, one of which was a framed trompe l’oeil drawing of a letter rack holding a variety of cards and other printed and handwritten papers. Executed in pen and water-color, the drawing demonstrates Lewis’s skills with the brush, as well as his protean hand. Its illusionism is stunning: like the dupes in anecdotes about painterly deception, the beholder is tempted to reach out and slip the false papers from their rack. The other item Lewis donated to the museum was a bit more unusual. It was a frame containing the originals—that is, the real letter rack holding the actual papers that provided the models for Lewis’s imitation. If the trompe l’oeil drawing belongs to a venerable tradition of deceit, the gift of the letter rack itself suggests that something special was at stake in Philadelphia in 1808, that there was an urgency for the visitors to Peale’s museum to see originals and imitations side by side so that truth might be distinguished from deception. It is this sense of urgency, felt widely in early national America, that Bellion explores in Citizen Spectator.
In six lucid chapters, Bellion traces a “cultural dialectic of deceit [End Page 659] and discernment” (5) throughout the final decades of the eighteenth century and the opening decades of the nineteenth. Against the model of a passive Enlightenment eye upon which were impressed the visual facts of its surroundings, Bellion unveils an early national culture in which paintings, optical devices, and entertainments of all kinds destabilized vision and in so doing produced active and discerning subjects. “Being a spectator in early America,” writes Bellion, “meant continually adjusting one’s focus” (59). The evidence for her argument is compelling. Trompe l’oeil painting, which experienced something of a renaissance in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century America in works like Charles Willson Peale’s Staircase Group (1795), Samuel Lewis’s A Deception (ca. 1805–8), and Raphaelle Peale’s Venus Rising from the Sea: A Deception (ca. 1822), is at the heart of Citizen Spectator and provides the focus for three of its six chapters. But no less important are other media, from optical devices and entertainments to print portfolios. Bellion’s first chapter foregrounds a variety of popular optical devices and entertainments of the period, including solar microscopes, magic lantern shows, phantasmagoria, optical boxes, and cosmoramas (peep shows that created illusions of all parts of the world). Another chapter is devoted to the extraordinarily popular early nineteenth-century phenomenon of the Invisible Lady, an entertainment that encouraged spectators to unmask the deception behind a disembodied female voice emanating from a glass chest. Yet another chapter examines a series of printed city views of Philadelphia by William and Thomas Birch, prints in which the tension between abstracted and embodied vision disrupts the possibility of a stable perspectival command of the city.
While Citizen Spectator, as its subtitle suggests, attempts to make a general argument about “art, illusion, and visual perception in early national America,” all six of its chapters are focused, to a greater or lesser extent, on Philadelphia. There is, to be sure, a transatlantic context for much of the material treated in this book, but Bellion justifies her concentration on Philadelphia because of the city’s importance as a political, commercial, and intellectual center of the Atlantic world. Beyond this, and in no small part thanks to the presence of the Peale family, whose integral role in Philadelphia’s visual culture is reflected in their prominence in Citizen Spectator, the city constituted a “laboratory for looking, a place where the visual ideologies of the early republic could be put to the...